Breaking down Austin’s 27th annual SXSW Music, the absolute hugest festival of its kind, is sort of like blind men touching different parts an elephant and coming away with completely opposing ideas on how that animal looks. With over 2,000 bands performing over a five-day period at dozens of downtown venues—and hundreds of panel discussions at the Austin Convention Center—no two attendee’s experiences can be anything alike. Last week at my very first SXSW, Jay Z, Nas, Kelis, Mobb Deep, 50 Cent, Schoolboy Q, B.o.B. and Tyler, the Creator all performed live. I didn’t see any of them. And still my personal SXSW was pretty amazing.
What I did manage to witness firsthand was a hush-hush Janelle Monáe show announced at the last minute, with Grammy-winning Gary Clark Jr. as the opener; the Björk-meets-R&B newbie darling SZA with indie rocker Cody Chesnutt, at an Okayplayer showcase deejayed by Erykah Badu; Lil Wayne granting a #CRWN interview to Rap Radar’s Elliott Wilson in a crowded conference hall; funk pioneer George Clinton talking copyright law; Russell Simmons pushing his All Def Digital channel for YouTube; and hit-making producers Just Blaze, Drumma Boy and Salaam Remi chatting up music warfare in the recording studio trenches.
And that’s not all. The 6th Street strip stayed packed like a parade all week long, recalling the heyday of Atlanta’s Freaknik bacchanalia on a daily basis. (Yes, with more clothes, but then temperatures rarely crept past the low 70s.) Walking down any block in a mile radius of the Convention Center, with music oozing down every avenue, felt like starring in a movie and being trailed by arbitrary rock soundtracks.
On chaotic 6th Street, Sean “Diddy” Combs’s Revolt TV channel provided some peace with an unmarked, in-the-know speakeasy at (now the secret can be told) Midnight Cowboy. Everybody invited cherished the downtime, as well as the freebie Revolt T-shirts, iPhone cases and drinks.
Plenty of artists perform multiple times on different stages because it’s impossible for them to be seen by all the thousands of interested wristband- and badge-holders at once. Kelis—promoting her upcoming Food album and Cooking Channel show, Saucy & Sweet—played short half-hour sets at Stubb’s, Clive Bar and the Hype Hotel over three days. I stood on a long line on Red River Street waiting on her Stubb’s show for 40 minutes last Wednesday night. Hearing her latest “Jerk Ribs” single from outside, I decided to catch her at the Hype Hotel instead.
About an hour later, 23 people were injured and three killed on Red River Street outside The Mohawk, by a drunken driver who plowed right through the line in a high-speed police chase. Days afterward, Tyler, the Creator would be arrested for inciting a riot at the Scoot Inn—standing onstage and encouraging fans to push through the gates. With over 200,000 swarming SXSWers, I considered whether or not the festival had gotten a bit out of control.
My own music conference history goes back to the days of the New Music Seminar (recently relaunched in 2009) of the ’80s and ’90s. Once upon a time, I was a volunteer the year Nirvana performed. Though SXSW kicked off in 1987, I’d never made it down to Texas before last week. But I still kept wondering to myself if SXSW Music had jumped the shark, if megastars like Jay Z and Coldplay defeated the purpose of the festival: shining light on indie acts.
Notable underground Afropunk bands like The Bots, Radkey and the oOohh Baby Gimme Mores reflect the true spirit of SXSW more than pop acts like Lady Gaga (who delivered the keynote address last Friday). Just this week, festival performers Danny Brown and Schoolboy Q seemed to agree.
“I remember coming out here years, years, years ago, before it was like all the major label guys,” Danny Brown told Complex. “It was pretty much up-and-coming artists. People coming here [now], they just going to see the Kanye show; now you don’t really get put up on nothing. It kind of lost a little something with that.” In The Washington Post, Schoolboy Q said, “They changed it all up. It’s corporate. I don’t ever want to come back unless they change it to where the fans are in. It’s not about the fans no more. It’s all about money.”
It’s food for thought. But that said, I’ll be back next year.
Miles Marshall Lewis is the Arts & Culture Editor of EBONY.com. He’s also the Harlem-based author of Scars of the Soul Are Why Kids Wear Bandages When They Don’t Have Bruises, There’s a Riot Goin’ On and Irrésistible. Follow MML on Twitter at @furthermucker, and visit his personal blog, Furthermucker.